My Blind Spot choice for May was an excellent one, and as I write this a couple of weeks after watching Jacques Demy’s 1964 film The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg for the first time, I feel relatively confident in saying that it is now one of my favourite musicals – a vivid, colourful and bittersweet melodrama containing wonderful performances from Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo and an insistent, memorable score from Michel Legrand. Despite the film’s stellar reputation among amateur and professional critics – not to mention musical aficionados – I had wondered beforehand whether I was going to like the recicative dialogue; it’s not something I tend to enjoy and I thought it might be a stumbling block preventing me from connecting with Demy’s work. However, it’s so well-done here that I stopped noticing the device for a while, and at times it even seemed completely natural that the actors were singing their lines throughout. And bravo to cinematographer Jean Rabier, whose vibrant vision of the French port town makes the bad weather seem oddly warm and appealing. This is a masterpiece. (*****)
John Carney’s latest has much in common with two of his earlier films, Once and Begin Again, both of which feature songwriters and identify the unifying, uplifting power of music. Sing Street – an upbeat, endearing tale of a teenage outcast in 1980s Dublin who forms a band at school – is his best yet; if nothing else it’ll win the award for the film that tries the hardest to put a smile on your face in 2016, and if you can ignore some of its cornier elements it’ll succeed in doing just that. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo stars as Conor, a young lad whose parents (Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy) are in the process of splitting up, their marriage disintegrating due to an extra-marital affair and concerns about finances; to save money Conor is moved from his middle-class Jesuit school to the brutal and notorious Christian Brothers school in Syng Street, where he quickly attracts the attention of a bully and the fearsome headmaster (Don Wycherley). Conor’s also shocked by the strict regime in place at Syng Street and instantly realises that he doesn’t fit in, but he does at least spot a girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) opposite the school gates, and sets about wooing her by asking her to act as a model in a video for his band. There are two problems, however: Conor doesn’t actually have a band, and Raphina already has a boyfriend (though as Conor’s older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) attests when he discovers some valuable information about the relationship in question: ‘no woman can ever love a man who listens to Phil Collins’).
The film’s at its best when it focuses on the band that Conor puts together, which is named Sing Street after the school they all attend. They’re a bunch of likeable misfits who start off shakily but quickly improve, driven partly by Conor’s will and the talents of co-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Eamon (a well-judged performance by Mark McKenna). Conor recruits four other members in total with the help of the band’s young manager (Ben Carolan), and watching them rehearse, converse, respond to pop trends and make lo-fi DIY music videos is a real joy; I was never in a band as a teenager but it seems pretty much anyone who was that has seen Sing Street has effusively praised its writer-director for his ability to nail the experience, from the absurdities and the awkwardness to the sense of hope and the sudden burst of creativity experienced by many. This is of course the era of MTV, and before long the band set about recording their first promo video, for a hilariously on-point song called The Riddle Of The Model. To Raphina’s amusement – and the audience’s – the band members perform in an array of different costumes which makes them look like a cross between Elvis Costello And The Attractions, Adam And The Ants and The Village People. Weirdly they sound a little bit like the Franz Ferdinand/Sparks collaboration FFS, and Conor proudly declares ‘We’re futurists!’ to anyone who asks.
Sing Street is almost as entertaining when Carney highlights the influence of Top Of The Pops – and some of the acts it featured – on families and teenagers in the 1980s. The entire family gathers before the TV for the show and Duran Duran’s video for Rio is heralded as ‘the future’ by Conor and Brendanl; dad, meanwhile, grumbles about miming performers and The Beatles in the background. Soon enough Conor is sporting a Simon Le Bon-style hairdo at school, which morphs into a Robert Smith-style get-up when Brendan introduces his younger brother to The Cure; later Spandau Ballet appear on TV and straight away the band members and other schoolkids are seen sporting oversized pastel jackets that presumably belong to older brothers or fathers. Developing in tandem with the band and its image is the burgeoning romance between Conor and Raphina; it’s a little by-the-book, I suppose, but rather sweet and I liked the way it wittily references the same Duran Duran video at the end.
It’s mostly very uplifting – think of a cross between The Commitments and We Are The Best!, though I’ve seen School Of Rock mentioned too – but Carney’s a savvy operator and he’s aware that all the best pop music reflects the sadness in life, too. He also knows that it works as a medium because of the escape that it offers. For all Brendan’s bluster in his own bedroom it quickly transpires that he has his own problems, while also within the family home Conor’s mum and dad seem to be unable to break out of their own respective fugs. In fact the film portrays a world in which nearly all of the parents are splitting up, or have already divorced, or have separated due to other circumstances (e.g. a prison sentence), or who beat up their children and turn them into playground bullies in doing so. Pop music is presented throughout as a means of escaping these problems. Meanwhile at school Conor is abused by the headteacher, another adult whose actions explain why some of the pupils have developed certain characteristics and behavioural patterns. The film doesn’t dwell on the darker subject matter, but it’s clear that Carney has thought about variations in tone and there’s a nice balance struck between upbeat, funny band moments, teenage growing pains and the more serious material. The creation of this equilibrium feels like it has been a forced at times – there’s a sympathetic and encouraging art teacher to cancel out the negativity of the headteacher, for example – but overall I think the director does a decent job of mixing downbeat social realism with the flights of fancy and comedy. It’s a crowd-pleaser, it has a lot of heart, and although it’s fairly predictable I was won over within five minutes.
Directed by: John Carney.
Written by: John Carney.
Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Kelly Thornton, Ben Carolan, Mark McKenna, Percy Chamburuka, Conor Hamilton, Karl Rice, Ian Kennedy, Don Wycherly.
Cinematography: Yaron Orbach.
Editing: Andrew Marcus, Julian Ulrichs.
Music: Gary Clark, Various.
Running Time: 105 minutes.
I must admit that in my pre-blogging days the whole Pitch Perfect phenomenon completely passed me by. Due to the fuss surrounding the recently-released sequel (the imaginatively-titled Pitch Perfect 2) and its impressive box office performance, I decided I ought to satisfy my curiosity and check out the original sleeper hit.
I wasn’t disappointed, although I think Pitch Perfect is a ‘good’ comedy, rather than a ‘great’ one. It’s certainly an uplifting film, thanks to the amusing and plentiful a cappella song-and-dance routines performed by the cast members, a few of whom make a lasting impression. Lead Anna Kendrick stands out as wannabe DJ Beca, who finds an outlet for her creativity in all-female collegiate a capella group The Bellas, while Rebel Wilson also impresses as sarcastic and occasionally offensive sidekick Fat Amy. Unlike the majority of teen comedies, which tend to be overly reliant on a couple of standout characters for chuckles, several others here prove to be consistently funny: there’s Hana Mae Lee’s ridiculously quiet singer Lily (a good running joke that never becomes tiresome), Anna Camp’s uptight group leader Aubrey and Adam DeVine’s Bumper, the arrogant leader of rival a capella group The Treblemakers, to name but a few. Christopher Mintz-Plasse pops up in a cameo, while John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks play a pair of ESPN-style commentators (though this is a rip off of the Jim Piddock / Fred Willard double act of Best In Show, which, it must be said, is far funnier).
I did like the way that Kay Cannon’s script, adapted from Mickey Rapkin’s novel Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory, establishes a wink-wink alternative reality in which a capella singers are the cool kids of the fictional Barden University and groups like The Treblemakers even have their own fans (and, it seems, recognition outside of campus). It piggybacks on Glee to a certain extent, with the clear intention of capitalising on that show’s cultural breakthrough and attracting the same audience, but Pitch Perfect does go a little further with its knowing humour and its on-stage gags hit the target more often (even if they are occasionally as basic as relying on some mid-song projectile vomiting).
The ingredients for success are clear enough. The story may be as straightforward and predictable as they come but the performances deliver likeable characters, the screenplay contains a few zingers (though I’d warrant that just as many laughs come from the improvisational skills of Wilson, if not more), while real-life a cappella musicians Ed Boyer and Deke Sharon deserve praise for their inventive arrangements. It was also a wise move to bring in Jason Moore, perhaps better known for offbeat Broadway productions like Avenue Q and Jerry Springer – The Opera, as director: he may be handling a formulaic piece but he obviously knows how to make a stage performance look exciting and he knows who the stars of his film are.
Not a classic, by any means, and the will-they-won’t-they relationship at the heart of the story is tedious, but I found myself laughing along regularly and my foot was tapping along to the singing throughout, particularly during a ‘riff off’ a cappella battle and the competition finale (national championships … guess who wins). Little wonder that it proved to be so successful, and no surprise that those who liked it have been packing out cinemas to see the sequel.
Directed by: Jason Moore.
Written by: Kay Cannon. Based on Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin.
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Skylar Astin, Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp, Adam DeVine, Brittany Snow, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins.
Cinematography: Julio Macat.
Editing: Lisa Zeno Churgin.
Running Time: 112 minutes.
This entertaining mid-90s musical comedy was one of the late Roger Ebert’s favourite Woody Allen films. In his review at the time of release Ebert indicated that Everyone Says I Love You might actually be his number one, and although that view was seemingly tempered by a little distance, by 2001 he still considered it among the director’s finest. And, quite honestly, it’s not difficult to see why he thought so highly of it: there’s an easy-going, breezy charm to this upbeat and witty film, which is full of trademark Allen zingers and amusingly-staged song and dance numbers.
Oddly enough, this would sit nicely on a double bill with Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Allen’s story focuses on a large, wealthy New York family, headed up by Alan Alda’s Bob and Goldie Hawn’s Steffi. They have two daughters – Lane (Gaby Hoffmann) and Laura (Natalie Portman) – and a newly-conservative son called Scott (Lukas Haas), while Steffi also has two more daughters from an earlier marriage to Paris-based Joe (Allen). They are DJ (Natasha Lyonne), who acts as the film’s narrator, and Skylar (Drew Barrymore), who is engaged to preppy lawyer Holden (Edward Norton). The number of family members and associated others at the dinner table means there are plenty of competing voices with much to say, although the loudest and most forceful of all is usually the family’s German maid Frieda (Trude Klein).
As the title indicates, Allen’s primary concern here lies with the loves of these characters, and he chooses to dwell on the mistakes they make or have made in the past. Lane and Laura chase after the same wealthy teenage boy, Skylar temporarily ditches safe bet Holden for a fling with Tim Roth’s newly-freed gangster and DJ, holidaying with her father in Venice, gets engaged to a young man after knowing him for less than a week. Meanwhile Allen’s recently-heartbroken character Joe chases after Von (Julia Roberts), a disgruntled married woman whose private thoughts from her New York therapy sessions are made known to the neurotic writer courting her in Europe.
Many of Allen’s screenplays focus on failing couples, and here more than ever the writer-director-actor seems to be working through the fallout of his own earlier marriages and relationships. ‘In a relationship, it is better to be the leaver than the leavee’ his Joe tells daughter DJ, before Von promptly leaves him, while Allen’s penchant for deprecating self-analysis can also be found in the way that other characters discuss Joe: ‘I’ve been trying since we got divorced to find the right woman for him, somebody to match up with his personality’, says Steffi. ‘I’m beginning to wonder if the world population isn’t too limited.’
The only solid couple in the film appears to be Steffi and Bob, though a syrupy sweet final scene in Paris featuring Steffi and Joe as they share their own regrets at the collapse of their marriage perhaps undermines the state of Steffi’s current union. As the divorced couple dances on the bank of the Seine there’s more than a flicker of their old romance, but it’s offset with an understanding that they’ve both moved on and can take a degree of pleasure from the fact their two daughters turned out well enough. It’s unashamedly schmaltzy, but there’s more than a hint of romantic magic about the setting and Goldie Hawn’s dancing, even if it anticipates Allen’s later unimaginative takes on European cities (Paris and Venice here equals apartments with views of Sacre Coeur, gondolas, etc. etc.). Ack…it’s charming enough and I’m willing to let this one pass without further comment, but I really don’t care for Allen’s simplistic, one-note take on Europe.
Linking the three cities together is DJ, who visits her father while he is himself holidaying / recovering from an earlier break-up in Venice. Lyonne is an actress I’ve always liked, ever since her supporting role in American Pie, and here she’s a valuable connection, although at times her voice-over is clearly being read from a sheet of paper or an autocue, and the actress also suffers at the hands of some of Allen’s writing (let’s just say he’s more successful at writing neurotic, male, Jewish New Yorkers of a certain age than he is at writing the innermost thoughts of teenage girls).
The film is at its most entertaining – and often bewitching – during the song and dance numbers, which pay homage to old musicals and incorporate jazz standards like Makin’ Whoopee, Looking At You and My Baby Just Cares For Me. The actors aren’t natural performers, either when singing or dancing, but I had a smile on my face whenever anyone broke into song or started tapping their fee. Some are clearly more competent than others: Goldie Hawn and Alan Alda can sing, but Drew Barrymore’s voice was apparently so bad a stand-in (Olivia Hayman) had to be used, while Edward Norton looks utterly uncomfortable throughout (top marks for effort, though, as he gamely soldiers on regardless). The choreography is often as loose as the singing, but it’s all suffused with such energy and frivolity that any amateurish moments can be easily overlooked, and you’re probably going to be too busy chuckling to notice anyway: the film’s tongue-in-cheek routines are increasingly, amusingly surreal, and include such sights as a man in a straightjacket pirouetting through the air, ghosts shaking away to Carl Sigman and Herb Magidson’s ode to carpe-ing the diem Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later than You Think) and a rendition of Hooray For Captain Spaulding in French, performed by a chorus of Groucho Marxes.
If it wasn’t obvious beforehand, the appearance of several people dressed as Groucho at the end of the film indicates that Everyone Says I Love You is, at heart, a celebration of Allen’s favourite things: sardonic wit, classic songs, the Upper East Side, Paris, Venice, musicals from the Kelly / Astaire / Rogers era, and so on. The story may be a little feeble and the performances may be largely unmemorable, but that doesn’t matter too much; a musical comedy stands or falls by its music, its dancing and its humour, and generally Allen and co get it right. There’s a strong sense of the writer’s passion for a certain skewed vein of American culture here, and while it’s hard not to roll your eyes at the appearance of yet another collection of Allen’s smug, wealthy New Yorkers, it’s even harder to resist the film’s goofy charms.
Directed by: Woody Allen.
Written by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Goldie Hawn, Woody Allen, Alan Alda, Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Edward Norton, Tim Roth, Natalie Portman, Gaby Hoffmann, Lukas Haas.
Cinematography: Carlo DiPalma.
Editing: Susan E. Morse.
Music: Dick Hyman, Various.
Running Time: 96 minutes.
My tolerance for musical films wavers depending on the style and, of course, the quality of the work in front of me. Last weekend, for example, I watched Robert Altman’s Nashville, and enjoyed it immensely; it’s a brilliant, brilliant film. The next day I watched a very different kind of musical: Tom Hooper and William Nicholson’s adaptation of Herbert Kretzmer, Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s adaptation of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, a well-received and financially-successful movie that was nominated for Best Picture at last year’s Academy Awards. This production is far grander than the 1998 version starring Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman and Chris O’Donnell, and its ‘look at this!’ extravagance certainly insists on drawing out mumbled praise, but the overall experience for me was about as enjoyable as root canal surgery. If I never see Russell Crowe’s rosy-cheeked, high definition face belting out a half-sung line again it’ll be too soon.
Having lived in big cities for around 15 years I’ve dipped my toe in enough times to realise that I have an intense dislike for the kind of theatrical pop-opera mega-musicals that run for decades with a seemingly endless supply of fans supporting them; naturally, as a result, I’m a little cool towards the film adaptations. Generally I find these shows to be overlong, over-the-top (yes, I know that’s kind of the appeal for a lot of people) and the thought of having to remain in a seat for around three hours while a bunch of people on stage sing 99% of the libretto at me in an irritating, blustery, uber-dramatic fashion brings me out in cold sweats. Why have I even bothered going to see any of these performances, you may well be asking? Well, it’s fulfilment of the typically-dutiful boyfriend / husband / relative role, plus I quite enjoy being angry: it can be fun if you’re able to manage it. But even I, as an avowed hater of most things West End and Broadway, appreciate that there are several reasons why these works are so popular, the same reasons why some fans pay to see them over and over again. Although I hasten to add I appreciate this very grudgingly indeed.
I’ve never actually seen Les Misérables on stage and I haven’t watched the Neeson version either (nor will I: life’s too short) so, at the very least, this offered an opportunity to see what the fuss was about. For the uninitiated the story takes place in 19th Century France and charts around 20 years in the life of ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), whose initial stay in prison for stealing a loaf of bread was lengthened by several failed escape attempts. Valjean’s nemesis is the dedicated police inspector Javert (Crowe), who subscribes to the old leopard / spots idiom and intends to imprison Valjean once again after the latter breaks his parole. Nine years later Javert is the Chief of Police while Valjean has ended up as the mayor of Montreuil. One of Valjean’s factory workers is Fantine (Oscar-snaffling Anne Hathaway, very good), whose illegitimate daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen when younger, Amanda Seyfried when older) is living with crooked innkeepers the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, both game and typically over-the-top). Circumstances result in Valjean deciding that he must raise Cosette, and nine years later they’re living in Paris, where the gap between rich and poor is widening at a pace. Cosette becomes embroiled in a love triangle thanks to her attraction to Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young student revolutionary planning a rebellion against the French monarchy. But wait: who’s that singing his way up the street at the front of a column of policemen? Why it’s Ruddy Cheeked Russell, of course, intent on putting a stop to this rabble-rousing nonsense and keen to put Jean Valjean away for good.
Hooper, who won the Academy Award for Best Director for The King’s Speech, has helmed a spectacular film. A number of shots are included in this adaptation that simply cannot be fully realised on a theatre stage (Rushmore Academy excepted) and several are worthy of the kind of hyperbole that’s often bestowed on musical theatre: the opening scene alone sees hundreds of prisoners towing a huge boat into a shipyard, while there are numerous glorious, marvellous, wonderful, tremendous, jaw-dropping, sublime, joyous and staggering shots of 19th Century Paris from above that recall Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. Meanwhile, at street level, the various numbers and scenes are finely-choreographed, with a huge cast of costumed and make-up-drenched extras adding to the cacophony in beautifully-designed sets; this is most impressive when the action eventually shifts to the French capital.
The director’s calling card is his camerawork and the framing, and the movement of the camera here certainly increases that faint sense of being there, weaving and bobbing among the many coughing, spluttering and singing characters. As with The King’s Speech Hooper often places his actors on the edges of the frame, and the technique serves him well once more, emphasising the main players during the many crowded scenes. At times the cumulative effect of camera and actor movement is dizzying: personal taste will dictate whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
I suppose it’s a sign of the film’s quality that I didn’t outright hate it, though I did find it overlong and I can’t ignore the fact that the near-constant delivery of lines via the medium of song wore me down within about five minutes (yes I know it’s a musical, and yes I expected singing as a result, but Mont Blanc, Rodders this film is relentless). It’s hard to enjoy any performance when it feels like you’re being beaten over the head into submission, and everything about Les Misérables feels designed to do just that. It doesn’t help that somewhere along the Long Road Of Adaptations many characters have been bestowed with those exaggerated Cockney urchin accents that are mystifyingly popular in mainstream theatre, and consequently nearly everything sung or said is over-emphasised with an irritatingly-fake London twang, but luckily none of the Antipodeans or Americans involved disgrace themselves with a Dick Van Dyke. The more confident cast members – Baron Cohen, for example – even venture as far as attempting stereotypical Parisian accents filtered through their overly ripe Lahndahn-ese. Naturally it’s awful.
The singing and acting, as you would expect, is of varying quality: Jackman and Hathaway are good, and it’s no surprise that either were lauded with awards and nominations following the film’s release. Bonham-Carter and Baron Cohen reinforce their reputations for eccentricity and their comic turns are actually quite enjoyable, even if their first song ‘Master Of The House’ feels like it goes on for a-hundred-and-one eternities. Crowe has already received a great deal of criticism for his singing and I won’t add any more insults on top of the gentle poking of fun above; ultimately, like many of the other actors here, he has stepped out of his comfort zone and the man cannot be charged with a lack of effort. Plus I like the fact his singing flaws have deliberately been left in. Who wants perfection? It’s boring.
Just to make it clear: I’ll never be able to judge popular musicals like this objectively as I categorically don’t like them. And, consequently, I didn’t like Les Misérables, although I didn’t hate it. However, if you’re the kind of weird freak of society that somehow derives pleasure from this nonsense there are definitely elements of this adaptation to admire and, I dare say, enjoy. And, as far as I’m concerned, you’re more than welcome to them.
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: William Nicholson, Victor Hugo, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Herbert Kretzmer
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham-Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Running Time: 157 minutes
Even as a fan of Belle and Sebastian’s music I feared the worst when the reviews started coming in for God Help The Girl, the debut feature by Stuart Murdoch, principle singer and songwriter with the band. For those unaware of the wistful indie-pop act, they formed in the mid-1990s, initially as a music college project in Glasgow. Murdoch was one of the original driving forces, and although they have lost a few members during the past couple of decades the band is well-known internationally, having gained a loyal and dedicated fan base in the late 1990s. Very generally-speaking, their albums appeal to the Milhouses of this world, as opposed to the Bart Simpsons; they are part of a long history of jangly Scottish indie guitar bands, in thrall to the sounds of the ‘60s, with observant, witty and introspective lyrics. If you’re interested in finding out more this Pitchfork TV documentary covers Belle and Sebastian’s early years.
Knowledge of the band – not just the music but also the background of its members and their relationship with Glasgow, their influences, style, promo videos and general outlook – isn’t actually a pre-requisite for understanding, or indeed liking, God Help The Girl, but it’s entirely likely that newcomers to the world of Belle and Sebastian may find that sudden immersion causes a fight or flight reaction. This musical, which stars Australian actress Emily Browning as a young psychiatric patient struggling with anorexia, features songs by Murdoch and his band and taps into the same idiosyncrasies that have seen Belle and Sebastian draw the ire of many detractors over the years as well as the love of fans. Put simply, it is about as mannered and as twee a film as you’re ever likely to see, and for some that will be very off-putting, while others will find the work gently comforting.
It’s heavily influenced by those early college days – three quirky and musical students meet and form a band – and Murdoch’s memories of his own time in Glasgow clearly dictate proceedings, perhaps in an overly-idyllic fashion (even the local neds that appear in the story exude about as much menace as a gang of fluffy kittens drunk on cough syrup). The trio are Eve (Browning), James (Olly Alexander) and Cass (Hannah Murray, best known for her roles in Skins and Game Of Thrones), who end up as flatmates one summer. Their friendship develops swiftly and there’s a mutual attraction between Eve and sensitive, bookish James, but her head is somewhat predictably turned by Anton (Pierre Boulanger), the cool singer of up-and-coming local act Wobbly-Legged Rat. Aside from the development of the band as a going concern and Eve’s ongoing struggles with anorexia that’s all there is in terms of plot, which is spread thinly over the film’s 111 minutes; a bit more judicious chopping would have helped.
The characters are pure Marmite; whether you love ’em or hate ’em it’s easy to see why some people have found this film unbearable to watch (including my wife, who hated it): Eve is the very definition of the manic pixie dream girl, kookily wandering about town in a plethora of cutesy outfits while pouting at the camera, and the character will probably piss off anyone who dislikes the work of Zooey Deschanel (or, more fairly, those who insist on creating such MPDG characters). James’s limpness eventually begins to grate, and Cass is a fairly redundant and one-dimensional space-case, but there’s still something nice in the way the film champions these soft-hearted types, gently cossetting them in an unthreatening, middle-class, old-fashioned Glasgow seemingly built on cotton-wool as opposed to the old industry along the River Clyde, however one-eyed that may be. I know people who used to be less-extreme versions of these characters, and thus I can’t bring myself to truly hate them, even though I did find myself cringing throughout.
Murdoch also wrote the screenplay, which is full of awkward interjections about the nature of bands, or pop music, or David Bowie’s songs, and so on, while also being disappointingly light in terms of its study of anorexia and youthful relationships, the two main subjects it purports to be about. The dialogue is clunky, the performances occasionally wooden (though Browning is fine) but the film is often charming, and when Murdoch playfully mocks the personalities of his characters it’s actually very amusing: the sight of James having a slapping fight with a drummer onstage at one Glasgow venue in front of a baying crowd offers a nice spin on macho rock star posturing, while the decision to give the same character a temporary job as a lifeguard in a local pool results in a couple of laughs due to his apparent weediness.
The comedian Josie Long appears in a cameo, as do the radio DJs Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie, while several members of Belle and Sebastian have walk-on parts or play in Eve’s band. Browning is energetic in her performances of Murdoch’s songs, growing more confident at the front of the various stages as the film wears on, but again enjoyment of the songs will probably boil down to your ability to handle industrial quantities of quirky, saccharine pop. I liked them, but that’s hardly a surprise given that I’ve been a Belle and Sebastian fan for well over 15 years; the highlight for me is definitely a stomping number called I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie which is played in front of a bunch of dancing Glaswegian pensioners. Here Murdoch’s promo video nous comes into play, and the cameras capture all the (presumably real) smiles and laughter of the club’s daytime patrons. It’s pretty infectious.
Most of the time, though, the problems usually associated with DIY affairs or student films are evident; that does make for a sense of fun and occasional spots of ramshackle charm, with homages to A Hard Day’s Night and Bande à part springing to mind by way of example, but the dialogue is often clunky and there’s an eagerness to try things out that reveals the director’s lack of experience. A conversation taking place in a room in a psychiatric unit is suddenly and inexplicably filmed from outside, for example, while there are other incongruities that stick out, such as a random lone iris shot, as if the button creating this effect had just been discovered in the editing suite. I’m also unconvinced by the decision to build the film’s most serious sequence, in which Eve gets drunk, takes acid and then attempts to overdose on her own prescribed pills, around another breezy, jaunty song. It’s a risky move, which is always admirable, but it doesn’t come off.
Predictably it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. Produced by Barry Mendel, whose credits include the first three Wes Anderson films, God Help The Girl is a film intended for the margins made by people and featuring characters that like to think of themselves as coming from the margins. It has some good moments and Murdoch has certainly managed to capture the spirit of his band in this tale, but ultimately the film is hampered by inexperience, rather than improved by it.
Directed by: Stuart Murdoch
Written by: Stuart Murdoch
Starring: Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray
Running Time: 111 minutes
I freely admit that normally the prospect of watching a musical has me not running for but either driving or catching a high speed train to the nearest hills (and if there’s a flight available that’s all the more preferable). All the histrionics. The warbling…nay…the caterwauling. The abhorrent jauntiness. The impassioned straining. The tears. The whole package usually turns me off and I’m forever wondering why the characters don’t just talk to each other rather than thrust their emotions back and forth through the medium of song. And by and large it’s those songs that I dislike. Put simply, it’s not my kind of music. I’d rather stick needles into my ears or watch an entire weekend marathon of Jason Statham films (including all of the DVD extras) than sit through ninety excruciating musical minutes. I am, I can only presume, missing the point.
This year, though, I’ve found myself mellowing somewhat, and this has caught me entirely by surprise. First off I read a great review last month by Steve Habrat on the Anti-Film School site for Les Misérables (which means ‘The Miserables’ for any non-French speakers out there), and now I’m pretty sure that I want to see it at some point. I know I’ll dislike the music, I know I’ll be wincing throughout as if I’m wide awake during root canal surgery, but as a grand scale production it sounds fascinating.
Secondly, I found myself watching and thoroughly enjoying Once, an Irish musical from 2006 written and directed by John Carney. I enjoyed the fairly simple love story, I enjoyed its lo-fi, low budget production values, I enjoyed the performances and … here’s the dealbreaker … I enjoyed the music made by the film’s two stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová.
The two play the twin lead roles of ‘The Guy’ and ‘The Girl’. The former is a busker working the crowded shopping streets of Dublin while temporarily living at home with his father, following both a relationship break-up and the death of his mother. The latter is a Czech migrant, selling flowers and copies of The Big Issue in order to support her mother and daughter, who have also moved with her to Ireland’s capital. They meet on the streets and the film charts their relationship as they make music together and their feelings for each other gradually become stronger. Unfortunately The Guy still pines after his ex, who now lives in London, and to complicate matters further The Girl has a husband who is still living in Czechoslovakia. (Despite an age difference of 18 years between Hansard and Irglová, the two have a very believable on-screen chemistry, and a real-life romance blossomed between the two during filming, which apparently lasted until 2009.)
Cillian Murphy originally signed on to play The Guy, but pulled out several weeks before shooting was due to commence. Unfortunately the film’s slated Producer also pulled out as a result, leaving Carney with a script, a female star and several songs but with no money and no male lead.
Hansard, lead singer with Irish band The Frames (with whom Carney had played in the 1990s), had co-written the songs with Irglová and was talked in to taking the lead role by his director friend. Luckily for all involved he agreed to do it, and he gives an assured but understated performance, only letting loose when playing his own songs. Irglová, in her debut role, is equally at home in front of the camera and though the musical scenes presumably required less acting effort from the two, around 40% of the film is non-musical, and both acquit themselves commendably throughout.
The songs used in the film are uplifting, folk-rock numbers that caught the ear of Bob Dylan, among others, who asked The Frames to support him on tour. One song, ‘Falling Slowly’, won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song. (Legend has it Hansard joked: “And the Oscar for best song goes to…” after recording it.) While they won’t be to everyone’s tastes they do fit perfectly with the storyline. I liked ‘em.
Dublin’s streets are photographed very normally throughout; there is no great desire to portray the city as something it isn’t, and the high streets shown in Once will be familiar to anyone that lives in or has visited the UK’s major cities. This in itself is a breath of fresh air, as is the casting; the characters look ‘normal’, and that’s meant entirely as a compliment. The film’s world is entirely believable, as it’s so instantly recognisable.
Even the introduction of music seems natural: The Guy and The Girl first play together in a musical instrument shop which The Girl uses for piano practice as she cannot afford a piano of her own. Shortly thereafter The Guy serenades The Girl on top of an almost empty bus with the tale of his broken down relationship, before launching into a witty heavy metal pastiche. At another point singers are filmed at a musical party. Forgive the cliché, but music is such an intrinsic part of Irish life that none of it seems forced in this film.
Money can’t buy heart, and though the filmmakers worked on a shoestring budget they have produced a film that contains more soul than a month’s worth of major blockbusters. The film’s simple tale is warm, bittersweet and deftly-handled by Carney, and it’s unsurprising that it became a success story upon its release (the subsequent Broadway musical has also been extremely successful, with the UK version opening next week at the time of writing). If you dislike musicals, perhaps this one might change your attitude a little, as it did mine.
Directed by: John Carney
Written by: John Carney
Starring: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
Running Time: 86 minutes